Artillery Row

A new democratic alliance

The world needs to rekindle its democratic alliances to counter China’s growing techno-authoritarian power

Over the coming decade, the greatest challenge to our democracies will be China. Its tentacles have already infiltrated deep into Western society and the rest of the world.

The Chinese Communist Party spends about $10 billion a year exporting its worldview through soft power — that’s more than the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan put together. The Party is censoring Hollywood and the stories that we pass on to future generations. It is even influencing Western universities and academic research.

China is reshaping the world to its likeness, making it an amenable place for autocracy

Confucius Institutes and China Students and Scholars Associations, funded and run by the Party, extend censorship around the academic world. They try to intimidate Chinese living abroad, their families at home, and foreigners alike, if the Party line is questioned. At the request of the Chinese government in 2017, Springer Nature, which publishes prestigious scientific journals like Nature and Scientific American, blocked access from mainland China to more than 1,000 articles on “sensitive” topics like Taiwan, Tibet, and human rights. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development strategy, is gaining it critical natural supplies and allies in Asia, Africa, and even Europe. China is reshaping the world to its likeness, making it an amenable place for autocracy, setting the stage to take the much-craved position of world leader.

The 2008 financial crisis, Trump, Brexit, and the coronavirus pandemic have only made China’s job easier. The weaker the West looks, the more China can present its techno-authoritarianism as a better option than democracy. As Kai Strittmatter argues in We Have Been Harmonised, every time we betray our ideals — by violating human rights, using police-state tactics like mass surveillance, or failing to cooperate between democratic countries — China and its henchmen gloat. Our moral failings confirm their worldview.

We are walking towards authoritarianism and away from our liberal values — precisely what China wants

Although the West is keenly aware of China’s looming threat, our response has been inadequate. We need to rise to the occasion. Tech enthusiasts like Eric Schmidt and Sheryl Sandberg have used the threat of China to push for leniency towards tech companies in the United States. They have argued that if Big Tech gets broken up or its access to data is limited, China will catch-up with us. That’s the wrong approach. Imitating our rival will not do. Our version of surveillance capitalism is increasingly looking like China’s system of social credit, with private corporations collaborating with governments in surveilling and controlling citizens. But trying to beat China at its own game is a mistake. We are walking towards authoritarianism and away from our liberal values — precisely what China wants. We must do the opposite.

Beating China in a race to the moral bottom would not be a victory for the West. Cutting-edge tech is perfectly compatible with democracy, but democratic tech has to stand opposite to autocratic tech. Despite what some companies would have us believe, technology is never neutral: it is built with certain assumptions in place, with different priorities and objectives in mind. We need tech that supports free societies. We need to walk away from systems that surveil, control, and rank the general population.

Services like Signal, DuckDuckGo, and ProtonMail should serve as examples for others to follow. The people behind these projects are tech enthusiasts who are also democracy enthusiasts. Democratic tech does not impose itself on citizens. It is there to enhance people’s autonomy, to help them achieve their own goals, as opposed to tech’s goals. It is not manipulative or addictive. Democratic tech tells it to you straight — no fine print, no under-the-table snatching of your data, no excuses, and no apologies. Democratic tech works for people. Netizens are its client; not advertisers, not data brokers, not governments. Democratic tech respects our rights. It does not spy on us.

The window of opportunity to recharge democracy is closing at the same speed as digital technology is developing. But despite the concerning trends, there is reason for optimism. Tech is global. That carries disadvantages, in that it makes tech harder to police, but it also has advantages. In the past, countries stood alone in regulating their big industries (think Rockefeller). Today, we can use the weight of an alliance of democratic countries to rein in corporations that have become more powerful than any one country.

Although the division being noted is one being felt between China and the West, the differences between Eastern and Western cultures at not what is at heart. As we can see in examples like Hong Kong and Taiwan, the East can be just as passionate about freedom as the West. And as we can see with Hungary, the West is just as vulnerable to autocratic takeovers. The true division is between authoritarianism and liberal democracies. That China is wielding the banner of authoritarianism is contingent.

It is time for democracies around the world to rekindle old alliances. We need a new pact, similar to the one that was developed after the Second World War. A new Declaration of Human Rights. The items on the agenda should be privacy, AI, and cybersecurity. The more we can join ranks on these issues, the more power we will have to face threats to democracy.

An alliance of democratic countries has to lead the world in the digital age, because if they don’t, China will

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with the Biden Administration, which is modelling itself after Franklin D. Roosevelt — someone who was acutely aware of the need for democratic countries to form alliances. President Biden issued more executive orders in the first two weeks of his Presidency than his three predecessors combined. He knows statecraft and is the best prepared person for the job in a century. Americans from both sides of the aisle should rally behind him—the stakes are too high for partisanship. And the rest of democratic countries should rally behind the United States. The US has the prowess to develop cutting-edge technology. Europe has the necessary experience in governance to make sure tech is designed and implemented in ways that respect and protect rights. The UK has a choice to make: it either becomes a data haven after Brexit, or it sides with its democratic partners in regulating data, AI, and big tech.

An alliance of democratic countries has to lead the world in the digital age, because if they don’t, China will.

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, as well as a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, at the University of Oxford. The paperback edition of her book, Privacy Is Power (an Economist book of the year), is published today.

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